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Vilification of coal

July 13, 2010


Sunday morning I had a few minutes to look at the Chicago Tribune over the breakfast table. The headline on page 1 hit me: “Clean coal dream a costly nightmare.” I figured that they were talking about that FutureGen project that seems to be running by fits and starts, uses experimental technologies, and is ‘way over budget. But no, that’s not it. The article is about a far more conventional power plant being built in southern Illinois by Prairie State Energy.

The main complaint of the article is that this plant is going to be a financial drain on its customers and a huge polluter. You can hear the sound of the hands ringing.

Actually, the plant is pretty interesting if you know anything about generating technology. It’s a greenfield coal-fired plant with two units totaling 1,600 MW being built by Bechtel. (See a video about the construction.) It’s placed at the minehead, so there is no need to move coal by truck or rail. It comes from the mine directly to the plant by conveyor. This plant will have a four-stage pollution control system that uses proven techniques: selective catalytic reduction, dry ESP, wet limestone scrubber, and wet ESP. Acid-rain creating pollutants, mercury, and particulates will likely be cut by more than 95%. The only thing that will go out the stack will be carbon dioxide. Given its state-of-the-art technology and proximity to its fuel source, this plant will put out far less carbon dioxide per MW than many others in the eastern quarter of the country that are older and draw their coal all the way from Wyoming.

The Tribune spends much time discussing the point that construction is running over budget for various reasons. That may well be the case, and it wouldn’t be the first project where that has happened. It’s true that Prairie State’s customers will ultimately have to carry some of the overrun, but again, that sort of thing has happened before. It’s most important to consider these situations over the long term since this plant will probably still be running in 2050.

Between now and then, carbon could become an issue. If some sort of carbon taxing system goes into effect, coal-fired plants will have a disadvantage. But coal still accounts for almost 45% of U.S. electricity generation so nothing is going to change all that drastically any time soon. Prairie State will also have an advantage that this plant will be relatively cheap to operate in comparison to many other facilities.

A similarly-sized nuclear plant would be one possible alternative if you aren’t in a hurry (Startup in 2022?), or you could use wind turbines. Let’s see, creating 1,600 MW using wind turbines would require at least 500 turbines, and that assumes they’re running at full capacity all the time, which doesn’t happen. You can’t cover your base loading requirements with wind.